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A photograph of a young woman in a sparkling dance costume opens Jane Nicholas’s The Modern Girl. What does this image tell us about girlhood in Canada in the 1920s? How did people understand being a “modern girl” and how did young women understand beauty and bodily norms? Nicholas turns to beauty pageants, advertising, film, swimming contests, and magazines to answer these questions. Adopting new modes of self-presentation, like bobbed hair, and behaviour, like smoking, were not superficial. Girls were part of, and helped constitute, what it meant to be modern, urban, and white in Canada in the 1920s. In the era, modern girls were at the heart of debates about the benefits and pitfalls of urbanization, women’s work, consumerism, and morality. Nicholas shows that women’s history is inextricably connected to longstanding debates about the nation and modernity.
We know modern girls best through advertising images and films of the 1920s. They “bobbed” their hair, used makeup, and smoked. But modern girls were also part of demographic and material changes in Canadian life of the 1920s. They moved to cities to work, lived alone (or in rooming houses) and purchased mass-produced goods at unprecedented rates. Nicholas is creative and clever in weaving together representations of modern girls with what we can know about their subjectivities. She finds women’s voices in letters to the editor and by assessing the popularity of events like beauty contests. Women were aware that their behaviour and looks were under surveillance. They learned modern femininities through advertisements as well as unspoken moral codes that taught them to be respectable.
The most provocative chapter in the book, “The Girl in the City: Urban Modernity, Race and Nation,” argues that the modern girl helped define Canada in the 1920s. Nicholas argues that the modern girl inspired anti-modernism in the decade. Concern about modern girls was woven into debates about urban decay, sanitation, and immigration. Modern girls’ apparent desire to marry non-white men inspired concerns about miscegenation. Modern girls were also partly to blame for the feminization of Canada, including the softness engendered through urban life and the “problem” of over-consumption. Modern girls challenged middle-class gender norms, helping to inspire moral reform movements and the Group of Seven’s anti-modern, masculinist vision of Canada. At the same time, modern girls had privilege. They could flirt with danger in the city, with wearing and consuming “Oriental” goods, but remain safe because of their whiteness. Actual non-white men and women were more of a threat than the modern girl.
Readers interested in the history of cities will find much of interest in Nicholas’s book. The modern girl did not belong to any particular place, but she was largely an urban phenomenon. She bridges the space between how cities were imagined and how people lived in Canada in the 1920s. Modern girls’ bodies were part of the material processes of urbanization—as workers, as commodities, and as consumers. But they were also part of the new visual culture of cities in the 1920s. In advertisements women were long and lean, a metaphor for the changing landscape of Canadian cities in the era. Films and beauty contests promised urban girls success (both as starlets and wives). Dialectics of pleasure and anxiety shaped discussions of the modern girl, much as it did debates about urbanization in the era. The only weakness of the book is that the author sometime struggles to define the tensions between representation and practice, privilege and powerlessness, and within patriarchy. In the final chapters, however, these themes come together. Modern girls challenged but did not upend social order in Canadian cities.
Often consigned to the background in studies of urbanization and labour, consumption and commodification are important themes in this book. While they were constrained by patriarchal structures and feminine norms, consumption was a site of pleasure and power for some modern girls. Using key theories on the history of femininity, we learn that modern girls used makeup and clothing to articulate their identities, and beauty to advance their personal interests. In this way we see that the modern girl was part of a complex web of social changes in the 1920s. “Modern girl”-hood transformed not only how women thought about themselves, but also how Canadians thought about urbanization and nationalism.